Elizabeth Loftus, psychologist and distinguished professor at the University of California, Irvine, discusses the prevalence of false memories.
She describes her own experiments in creating false memories, and explains how this impacts fields ranging from law to dieting.
Elizabeth Loftus, Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Irvine, studies human memory. Her experiments reveal how memories can be changed by things that we are told.
Facts, ideas, suggestions and other post-event information can modify our memories. The legal field, so reliant on memories, has been a significant application of the memory research. She is also interested in psychology and law, more generally.
Power or process of recalling or reproducing what has been learned or experienced. Research indicates that the ability to retain information is fairly uniform among normal individuals; what differs is the degree to which persons learn or take account of something to begin with and the kind and amount of detail that is retained. Attention, motivation, and especially association facilitate this process. Visual images are generally better remembered than are other forms of sense-data. Memory prodigies, or people with photographic or eidetic memories, often draw heavily on visual associations, including mnemonics. Many psychologists distinguish between short- and long-term memory. The former (variously said to last 10 seconds to 3 minutes) is less subject to interference and distortion than the latter. Long-term memory is sometimes divided into episodic (i.e., event-centred) and semantic (i.e., knowledge-centred) memory. Various models of memory have been proposed, from the Enlightenment notion of impressions made on brain tissues (restyled as memory molecules or coded engrams in the 20th century) to B.F. Skinner's black box to more recent ideas concerning information processing or the formation of neuronal groups. Disorders of or involving memory include Alzheimer disease, amnesia, Korsakoff syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, and senile dementia. See alsohypnosis.
Study questions for Dr. Loftus's talk:
1. Dr. Loftus asks her audience to participate in an exercise involving an altered photo. What did the audience’s response show about altered photos? Is it easy to fool people with altered photos?
2. Loftus says that false memories were planted in a quarter of the subject in her often-cited lost-in-a-shopping mall study. Should Loftus explain that family members helped create the “lost-in-a-mall” false memories which were based upon true shopping events and included true details? How does this study apply to what a therapist might do?
3. The altered photo of a hot air balloon convinced some study participants they had ridden in a hot air balloon as a child. How does this study apply to what a therapist might do?
4. Loftus’s research shows that telling people they got sick eating a dill pickle, a hard-boiled egg or strawberry ice cream may cause them to say they would be less likely to eat this item in the future. Do you think this approach would be effective as a weight loss method?
5. Loftus describes a study that took place during an intensive, week-long military training in survival, evasion and resistance to interrogation. After a 30-minute interrogation, soldiers were shown a photo of a man who did NOT conduct the interrogation and asked what the man did when he conducted the interrogation. Afterwards, they were shown 9 photos of men who did not do the interrogation, including the photo they’d been shown. Loftus reported that 91% picked the photo they had been shown. Do you think the results would have been any different if the 9 photos had included a photo of the man who conducted the interrogation?
6. Loftus does not cite the body of research suggesting that repressed/recalled memories can be corroborated. What problems, if any, may arise when a scientist fails to cite research that might contradict their hypothesis?
I thought I'd summarize my thoughts on this. I watched this presentation online. From my perspective as a veteran Toastmaster with a graduate degree in psychology: world-reknown memory researcher Dr. Elizabeth Loftus has transformed herself as a speaker for “What’s the Matter.” She’s no longer the “brilliant but absent-minded professor who is way too busy prepare a well-structured speech.” Instead, she’s become a polished, professional speaker—articulate and convincing—like the AFTER in a “How a speech coach can help you” ad.
This new, hour-long presentation is memorized—not bad for a woman approaching her mid-60’s! Loftus’s body movements are smooth, and graceful, The PowerPoint graphics are engaging, and Loftus handles the slide transitions like a pro.
As for the content, not much is new here. It’s the same message she’s been pushing for years: “Memory-based testimony is not perfect. My research supports this.”
So don’t expect her audiences to hear about the nearly two dozen studies that substantiate recalled memories, or the hundred plus substantiated cases, or the sixty studies reporting that some adults repressed childhood trauma or that subjects under stress don’t remember unimportant details.
Loftus isn’t there to present a boring, balanced, scientific lecture. She’s there to convince her audience that adults accused of molesting children could be falsely accused. She begins her talk by engaging her audience in a “misidentification” exercise with an altered photo. And half her audience misidentifies the photos. .
I don’t know about the audience, but I was left thinking, “This study might come in handy some day—if detectives are ever accused of altering photos.”
Loftus discusses her study that took place during a week-long Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training. Soldiers underwent a 30-minute interrogation during the training, were shown a photo of a soldier who did not do the interrogation, and asked to tell what he did during the interrogation. Afterwards, they were shown 9 photos of men who did not do the interrogation, and 91% picked the photo they were shown.
“The thing that makes me a little nervous,” Loftus says, “is the idea that this information might get in the hands of the enemy who can use it to subvert justice.” Perhaps. But I wondered what might have happened Loftus had included a photo the actual interrogator in the 9 photos. .
Loftus seems to often take a liberal viewpoint when she discusses her research. For example, she tells this audience that “a quarter of” the subjects in her famous (in psychology circles) lost-in-a-mall study “fell sway to the suggestion” they were lost in a mall. That’s a substantial increase from the 2 (12%) report she made to the Human Subjects Committee when she finished the study in 1994. If anyone in the audience decides to read the study, here’s what they may find: It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that, statistically, if any less than 6 of the 24 subjects said the false lost-in-a-mall memory was true, then the results don’t prove much of anything.
Loftus tells her Chatauqua audience a story about a therapist who assured her client that the cinnamon roll in her dream symbolized a penis. The link for the therapist, Loftus explained, was “the goo on the top.” Really?
I hit pause at that point and did some fact-checking. Do cinnamon rolls and/or frosting dreams symbolize anything related to a penis? No connection. I came up with Loftus’s 2002 paper saying this dream came up in her “first case.” She doesn’t cite the case, though. Loftus tells her audience they may never look at a cinnamon roll in the same way again. I wondered if Loftus might have confused her case with an off-color joke.
I don’t expect this audience to be using their laptops to fact-check Loftus’s speech. I also wouldn’t expect Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, the religion director at the Chautauqua Institution who introduced Loftus, to research her introduction. But what if she had?
Campbell says in her introduction that Loftus testified as an expert witness “in the Bosnian war trials at The Hague.” Anto Furundzija was the defendant in this case. He had been charged torture and inhumane treatment for orchestrating the multiple rape and torture of a woman. Loftus testified that since this witness was under stress at the time of the rapes, that her identification of the defendant could be questionable. In support of this claim, Loftus cited her 1982 study showing that research subjects who saw a stressful event failed to correctly identify an unimportant detail--the number on the back of a young bystander’s shirt. Loftus and her co-author concluded: mental shock can produce amnesia.
What Loftus didn’t tell the court at The Hague was this: The subjects correctly identified the important details. The three trial judges ruled that Furundzija was guilty of the charges.
For nearly 30 years, it seems that prosecutors have been relying upon Loftus’s own interpretations of her research when she testifies as a defense expert. Recently, though, prosecutors have started to read Loftus’s published research.
US Attorney General Patrick Fitzgerald made headlines in the “Scooter” Libby case in 2006 when he confronted Loftus on the witness stand with a misinterpretation of the survey data in her “Beyond the Ken” study. The jury found Libby guilty.
Should these jury decisions surprise us? Well, as Loftus says in her book, “Witness for the Defense,” (p. 72) the defendant is guilty “perhaps 99 percent of the time.”
Unless I'm mistaken it sounds a lot like the reason it works is Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or NLP. Reason being is because she says that they have the subject "dwell" on the negative memory, more strongly tying it to the brain.
L. Riki asked on 8/4 what Loftus thinks about repression. That's a good question.
In her 1981 book titled “Psychology” Loftus said on p. 203 “According to Freud, people often push unacceptable, anxiety-provoking thoughts and impulses into their unconscious so as to avoid confronting them directly. This psychological defense mechanism is called repression. Thus a young woman who is sexually attracted to her father may try to repress her disturbing incestuous desires. But her behavior may indicate that these feelings are not completely forgotten. The woman may pause or fumble for words when discussing certain things about her father and she may show other signs of anxiety such as sweating or blushing.”
Then in her 1994 book “The Myth of Repressed Memory” on p. 63 “As I sat in the witness box answering the prosecutor’s questions, I began to sense the power of this thing called repression. I felt as if I were in a church arguing with the minister about the existence of God.” She explained that repression requires a “leap of faith to believe."
This could mean Loftus no longer thinks that a young woman who fumbles for words, sweats or blushes when talking about her father has repressed disturbing incestuous desires. And I, for one, am relieved to hear this!
For more accurate information on memory and the memory debate , see:
The term False Memory Syndrome was created in 1992 by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF). It has been called "a pseudoscientific syndrome that was developed to defend against claims of child abuse."  The FMSF was created by parents who claimed to be falsely accused of child sexual abuse. The False Memory Syndrome was described as "a widespread social phenomenon where misguided therapists cause patients to invent memories of sexual abuse." Research has shown that most delayed memories of childhood abuse are true. In general, it has been shown that false allegations of childhood sexual abuse are rare, with some studies showing rates as low as one percent and some studies showing slightly higher rates. It has been found that children tend to understate rather than overstate the extent of any abuse experienced. It has been stated that misinformation on the topic of child sexual abuse is widespread and that the media have contributed to this problem by reporting favorably on unproven and controversial claims like the False Memory Syndrome.
Recovered memories have been defined as the phenomenon of partially or fully losing parts of memories of traumatic events, and then later recovering part or all of the memories into conscious awareness. They have also been defined as the recollections of memories that are believed to have been unavailable for a certain period of time. There is very strong scientific evidence that recovered memories exist. This has been shown in many scientific studies. The content of recovered memories have fairly high corroboration rates.
Loftus is very biased in her interpretation of traumatic memory. There is NO evidence that traumatic memory can be created through manipulation.
Loftus' work has been heavily critiqued.
Several studies and authors have found significant flaws in the Loftus' Lost in the Mall study. A similar study by Pezdek in 1995 found that while researchers were able to duplicate the lost in the mall results with 15% of their subjects, none of the study participants accepted an erroneous memory that they had received a painful enema as a child. Crook states that the Lost in a Shopping Mall study’s application to therapy situations appears to be “limited to a narrowly defined and perhaps even unlikely situation” and states that the study’s “internal scientific methodological errors cast doubt on the validity of the claims” of the study. Crook also states that it has been demonstrated that the “methods, data, and assumptions in the mall study have not been subjected to rigorous scientific scrutiny” yet its results have been reported to the media to support the claim that “therapists can implant false memories of childhood trauma.” Pope also questions the study. He questions the analogy of a memory of being lost in the mall as being equivalent to that of child rape. He also talks about the problem of confounding variables in the study. If an older family member claims to have seen the “false” memory, can a therapist make the same claim? And should this research be applied to “false” memories in therapy? Others have also critiqued Loftus’ scholarship and accuracy or that Loftus’ has done research that may contradict her own beliefs of recovered memories. 
1 Pezdek, K; Hodge, D. (July-August 1999). "Planting false childhood memories: The role of event plausibility". Child Development 70 (4): 887–895. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00064. Retrieved on 2008-01-30. “This experiment tested and supported the hypothesis that events will be suggestively planted in children's memory to the degree that the suggested event is plausible and script-relevant knowledge exists in memory.”
2 K. Pezdek, Planting False Childhood Memories: When Does It Occur and When Does It Not? paper presented at the 36th Annual Meeting of the Psychonomics Society (Nov. 10-12, 1995) cited in Murphy, Wendy J. (1997).Debunking "false memory" myths in sexual abuse cases.Trial: Journal of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, November, 1997. Retrieved June 05, 2008
3 Crook, L. (1999). "Lost in a Shopping Mall--A Breach of Professional Ethics.". Ethics & Behavior. 9 (1): 39–50. doi:10.1207/s15327019eb0901_3. Retrieved on 2008-01-18. “An analysis of the mall study shows that beyond the external misrepresentations, internal scientific methodological errors cast doubt on the validity of the claims that have been attributed to the mall study within scholarly and legal arenas. The minimal involvement——or, in some cases, negative impact——of collegial consultation, academic supervision, and peer review throughout the evolution of the mall study are reviewed.”
4 Pope, K. (1996). "Memory, Abuse, and Science: Questioning Claims About the False Memory Syndrome Epidemic". American Psychologist 51: 957. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.51.9.957. Retrieved on 2008-01-31. “Does the trauma specified in the lost-in-the-mall experiment seem comparable to the trauma forming the basis of false memory syndrome? Loftus (1993) described the implanted traumatic event in the shopping-mall experiment as follows: "Chris was convinced by his older brother Jim, that he had been lost in a shopping mall when he was five years old" (p. 532). Does this seem, for example, a reasonable analogy for a five-year-old girl being repeatedly raped by her father?....Is it possible that the findings are an artifact of this particular design, for example, that the older family member claims to have been present when the event occurred and to have witnessed it, a claim the therapist can never make? To date, replications and extensions of this study have tended to use a similar methodology; that is, either the older family member makes the suggestions in his or her role as the experimenter's confederate, or the experimenter presents the suggestion as being the report of an older family member, thus creating a surrogate confederate.”
5 "Memory, Abuse, & Science: Questioning Claims about the False Memory Syndrome Epidemic" (1996). American Psychologist vol. 51, no. 9: pp 957–974..
6 Jennifer Hoult, Esq.. "Consider the Evidence for Elizabeth Loftus' Scholarship and Accuracy "Remembering Dangerously" & Hoult v. Hoult: The Myth of Repressed Memory that Elizabeth Loftus Created".
7 Hopper, J.. "Recovered Memories of Sexual Abuse Scientific Research & Scholarly Resources". "Loftus has conducted and published research which calls into question her public statements on recovered memories; her own study demonstrated that the conditions of amnesia and delayed recall for sexual abuse do exist"
Elizabeth Loftus herself has published studies showing evidence of recovered memory. The 4 January 1996 issue of Accuracy About Abuse notes: Elizabeth Loftus, high profile FMSF advocate, published a paper with colleagues on Remembering and Repressing in 1994. In a study of 105 women outpatients in a substance abuse clinic 54 % reported a history of childhood sexual abuse. 81% remembered all or part of the abuse. 19% reported they forgot the abuse for a period of time and later the memory returned. Women who remembered the abuse their whole lives reported a clearer memory, with a more detailed picture. Women who remembered the abuse their whole lives did not differ from others in terms of the violence of the abuse or whether the violence was incestuous. [Psychology of Women Quarterly, 18 (1994) 67-84.]
Loftus has also discussed "motivated forgetting", and has presented the documented study of a college professor who became unable to remember a series of traumas, but after some time was able to recover those memories. Loftus remarked "after such an enormously stressful experience, many individuals wish to forget... And often their wish is granted." (Loftus, 1980/1988, p. 73)" http://web.archive.org/web/200306082...se-memory.html
"The hypothesis that false memories can easily be implanted in psychotherapy (Lindsay & Read, 1994; Loftus 1993; Loftus & Ketcham, 1994; Ofshe and Watters, 1993, 1994; Yapko, 1994a) seriously overstates the available data. Since no studies have been conducted on suggested effects in psychotherapy per se, the idea of iatrogenic suggestion of false memories remains an untested hypothesis. (Memory, Trauma Treatment, And the Law Brown, Scheflin and Hammond (D. Corydon), 1998, W. W. Norton 0-393-70254-5)
Loftus is aware that those who study traumatic memory have for several years, based on a great deal of research and clinical experience, used the construct of dissociation to account for the majority of recovered memories. However, she continues to focus on and attack "repression" and "repressed memories," which has the effect of confusing and misleading many people.
"Lost in a Shopping Mall"—A Breach of Professional Ethics
ETHICS & BEHAVIOR, vol. 9, #1, pp. 39-50
The "lost in a shopping mall" study has been cited to support claims that psychotherapists can implant memories of false autobiographical information of childhood trauma in their patients. The mall study originated in 1991 as 5 pilot experiments involving 3 children and 2 adult participants. The University of Washington Human Subjects Committee granted approval for the mall study on August 10, 1992. The preliminary results with the 5 pilot subjects were announced 4 days later. An analysis of the mall study shows that beyond the external misrepresentations, internal scientific methodological errors cast doubt on the validity of the claims that have been attributed to the mall study within scholarly and legal arenas. The minimal involvement—or, in some cases, negative impact—of collegial consultation, academic supervision, and peer review throughout the evolution of the mall study are reviewed.
I finished grad school with my psych degree in the early 70s. We were told that child sexual abuse is a sensitive issue, it causes harm, clients might be embarrassed to talk about it. We could say, “Sometimes people with issues like yours were molested as children, do you think something like that might have happened to you?” I never asked. I knew of only one symptom: long periods of time the client can’t remember experiencing anything with family members inside the home. In other words, they can’t tell any stories. They’re repressed it all to protect themselves, the family, and the predator.
The mid-80s to 1991 could also be described as a time when victims of child sexual abuse were finding the courage to disclose, to tell someone. The media began tellins us about signs to look for. In 1988-9, state legislatures began extending statues of limitations and allowing adults who recalled, the right to sue for damages. I've long wondered how the predator reacted to all this, given all the kids they'd molested.
There was so much of this going on in psychotherapy in the late 80's and early 90's. I don't think the therapists (in most cases, especially at first) were doing it on purpose. The guided imagery work was a technique that was being used by novice therapists because of the huge explosion of sexual abuse cases presenting in therapy. Often therapists were bringing sexual abuse up, although the client had not even presented with this as an issue. I knew therapists who would tell the patient that they were likely sexually abused, but had to do some "work" and figure out what had happened. Well what do you know they would come to the next session with a "perpetrator" in mind. I was living this in real time as a young, beginning therapist and I knew something was going on, and I started to hypothesize that it had something to do with the self-help culture of victimization books that were prescribed reading from many therapists as homework. I stayed away from these books, and guess what? I had sexual abuse victims for clients, but not one client who had not known about this abuse at the time of intial assessment.
Thank you for sharing your experience. If it helps, I've found that survivors of child sexual abuse typically don't disclose, however accidentally, unless we feel safe with the person. Your relative felt safe with you. I always say, "I'm glad you could tell me" after someone discloses. And I check to see if they want to tell me more. And yes, what pedophiles do to children is pretty gross. Then I might ask a few questions to see if any children are currently at risk from him (or her). If this is a possibility, then I encourage her to take some action to ensure the children's safety. Those of us who couldn't protect ourselves back then, can protect other children now.
I stopped disclosing for several years after people started asking me if it was a false memory. I'd provide evidence, but they'd read about false memories so they thought it must be true, I guess. Your relative is brave.